The federal government is working on a passenger’s bill of rights to improve the travelling public’s protection if they get bumped off a flight and demands that airlines treat passengers better if they get delayed in transit. But what about when they are in the air? Canada claims to have a superior inspection and monitoring system for aviation safety, but what is really happening behind the scenes?

The curtain got drawn recently when the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its report into a 2016 incident involving an Air Canada Express flight from Lethbridge to Calgary, Alberta. What the TSB allowed us to see was that despite claims from both Transport Canada (TC) and the airlines, that maintenance is not always properly carried out and that the system failed to detect it. Until after an accident happened.

According to the TSB report dated May 29, 2018,

“The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigation (A16W0092) into an occurrence where the nose wheel failed to extend on an Air Georgian flight found several maintenance-related deficiencies that went undetected by the company’s safety management system (SMS). These issues also went undetected by Transport Canada oversight activities.”

It is important to note two things. One is that under the Transport Canada Safety Management System, the airline companies and not Transport Canada inspectors have the primary responsibility for ensuring the safety and proper maintenance of their aircraft and equipment. Secondly, instead of providing direct inspections, Transport Canada inspectors audit the inspection that the companies carry out. This is not the way that the Americans or many other countries in the world handle their aviation safety process.

For many years the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE) has been arguing that Transport Canada needs to be more active instead of reactive when it comes to safety inspections and their overall Safety Management System (SMS). Now we have another example where airline passengers were put at direct risk because of this policy. On that fateful day of 12 July 2016, the Beechcraft 1900D turboprop aircraft had 2 flight crew members and 15 passengers on board.

When the flight crew lowered the landing gear for the approach into Calgary, they noticed that there was no gear-safe indication for the nose landing gear. The flight circled for about one hour while the flight crew attempted to fix the problem. An emergency was declared and the aircraft landed with the nose gear partially extended. Luckily, there was minimal damage to the aircraft, no fire, and there were no injuries.

The TSB investigation found that the nose landing gear did not fully extend because of a lack of lubrication to certain landing gear components and that when they traced it back, that the staff was not trained to do this work and the company’s quality control and safety management systems were “ineffective at identifying and correcting improper and unsafe practices related to nose landing gear lubrication tasks”

The Transportation Safety Board went on to say that “If TC does not adopt a balanced approach to oversight that combines inspections for compliance with SMS audits, there is a risk that improper maintenance practices will not be identified, which may lead to incidents and accidents.”

This is not the first incident that is directly related to a policy that gives priority to business over the safety of Canadians. It has been highlighted for years in reports by the TSB and in yearly audits by the Auditor General. But we are one loose screw or an overly worn tire, or a lack of lubrication away from an air disaster that will injure or kill passengers or crew members.

As the union representing inspectors at Transport Canada in all modes of transportation, their focus is on safety first. To do that, UCTE believes that Transport Canada needs to combine inspections with SMS audits instead of just auditing SMS alone. The practice of allowing SMS assessments to replace direct and unannounced inspections is a grave mistake. Giving airlines primary responsibility for safety oversight will lead to more accidents and incidents like the one noted above.

Once again on behalf of these qualified inspectors we call for an additional layer of safety and that the audit or assessment function should be completely separate from the direct inspection. Before the next incident or accident.

The travelling public deserves and demands better protection in the terminal and in the air. They need to know with certainty that the aircraft they fly on has been property serviced, maintained and inspected. We can’t say that for certainty today and that has to change.